Oppenheim’s surreality was driven by an awareness of how women were viewed in society in the 1930s, and she used her art as commentary on this experience. Her work was lauded with humorous and erotic tones that were always underlined by a critique of this oppression. To challenge enforced gender roles, Oppenheim commonly incorporated domestic symbolism into across her sculptural works. Take her “Object” (1936) as a prime example.
English surrealist Leonora Carrington’s most important influence on the movement was how she redefined its symbolism by drawing on her childhood of growing up on a farm, and the Celtic folklore fairy tales that her Irish Nanny used to read to her. Her celestial, dreamlike works incorporate her childhood memories alongside references to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, medieval alchemy, and Renaissance paintings.
Gertrude Abercrombie, The Courtship, 1949. Collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Gertrude Abercrombie Trust. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago. Courtesy of MCA Chicago.
Dorothea Tanning, High Wires, 1950. Image courtesy of Kent Fine Art.
“Toyen’s entire oeuvre aims at nothing less than the correction of the exterior world in terms of a desire that feeds upon and grows from its own satisfaction,” Benjamin Peret wrote in 1953. Indeed, her work constructs the enigmatic stage for an interior world, one pulsing with erotic urges and animal instincts that do not ask to be explained.
Tichenor’s paintings, inspired by 16th-century Italian Renaissance works, combined traditional painting methods with more unorthodox spiritual influences, such as Mesoamerican mythology and the occult. Her works often involve masks, disguises and unhinged faces, evoking her personal journey to self-discovery and spiritual awakening.
She cites Meret Oppenheim standing nude beside a printing press in Man Ray’s famous series, or Unica Zürn depicted as a tied-up doll in a work by Hans Bellmer. Women, according to Pfeiffer, were “in many cases, anonymised as ‘the woman,’ a mysterious, desired being. The omnipresence of the female body in Surrealist art confronted women artists with the task of growing, with their own ways of seeing and thinking, from a passive object into an acting subject.”
Bridget Tichenor, The Surrealists/The Specialists, (1956). Private Collection Mexico, © Bridget Tichenor.
If New York is lucky it will see more work by Rahon, Varo, Carrington and their fellow travelers. Surrealism, the most accessible of modern art movements, still has its secrets.
These shows hardly exhaust their subjects, but they are sufficiently concentrated and together they put on view more Mexican Surrealism than we have seen here in some time. They are mere blocks apart on Madison Avenue in delightfully different settings. Carrington’s luminous Gothic paintings, are displayed in a spacious, nearly bare white cube that seems to amplify the paintings’ magical, often masked creatures and tinted atmospheres. The show culminates in six sculptural masks that Carrington designed in 1976 for her never-produced play, “Opus Siniestrus: The Story of the Last Egg.”